Muhammad Nassardeen pumps his gas at a black-owned gas station, has his teeth cleaned by a black dentist and drops his clothes off at a black-owned cleaners. On the back of his car is a license plate frame bearing the slogan: "Respect and Protect the Black Dollar."
When Nassardeen does stray into a white-owned business, such as a recent trip to Circuit City to purchase stereo equipment, he seeks out a black salesman.
There was no black clerk at the men's shop of a major South Bay department store recently, so Nassardeen did what he always does in that sort of situation: He told the manager to hire a black clerk, and he left.
"If you spend $25 to fill up your car with gas at a white station, you get $25 worth of gas," he said. "If you go to a black business, you have gotten the gas and supported the black employees and helped their families. . . . Blacks have been blaming people for our ills for years and years and years, and it hasn't gotten us anywhere. We need to focus on the things we can change."
Nassardeen is not alone in his color-conscious buying habits. Recycling Black Dollars--an organization he founded in Inglewood in 1988 to promote black businesses--now has more than 1,900 members stretching from San Bernardino to San Diego. The group's followers scoff at critics of the group who charge that members are being racist by only frequenting other black businesses. Members say they are doing what other communities have done successfully for generations.
Recycling Black Dollars attracts members at weekly networking meetings, highlights a business of the month in its newsletter and publishes a directory listing companies by specialty. A special youth component promotes entrepreneurship among students, and a proposed rating system will award black businesses up to four stars for good service.
The group's membership rolls are growing steadily, and the group is already showing signs of success.
Nassardeen stopped by an Inglewood gas station soon after the group's founding in 1988 to sign up owner Albert King Jr.--only to learn that Chevron was canceling King's contract because of sagging revenues.
Recycling Black Dollars fired off a letter to the company signed by 200 members, suggesting that closing the station would be a bad decision. The group's members then helped increase the Inglewood station's business from 60,000 to 95,000 gallons per month. King's contract was renewed.
"There is no doubt about it. I would have been out of here if it wasn't for Recycling Black Dollars," said King, 62, who has been a Chevron dealer for 28 years and has run his current station at the corner of Manchester Boulevard and 5th Avenue for the last 15 years.
At Recycling Black Dollars' meetings at Marla's Memory Lane restaurant in Los Angeles, members take the stage, one by one, to give a quick "commercial" about their businesses. There is an insurance saleswoman, a notary public who also sells African dresses, a limousine driver and a man who fills windshield cracks.
Herman Collins, 23, spells out the name of his 3-year-old company, Techniglass, and says it makes good financial sense to use his service. "It's better to repair than replace," he says of cracked or pitted windshields. "If you don't call me, you'll be getting a new windshield."
Bobby Banks, who makes house calls to clean and detail cars, credits Recycling Black Dollars with helping him pick up contracts with a Porsche-Audi dealer and credits actress Marla Gibbs, a Recycling Black Dollars member who starred in the television series "The Jeffersons" and "227" and now operates the restaurant where the group's meetings are held.
"Every week, as soon as I get off the stage, I always have at least one (new) customer," said group member Nathan Green, who runs Apex Travel Co. in Inglewood. "It's a good opportunity for me to have a captive audience."
Green, who estimates that his business has gone up 25% since joining Recycling Black Dollars, says he is deeply committed to the cause that the group espouses.
"Whenever I'm out and I have to get gas, I always think, 'What direction can I turn to find a black-owned gas station?' " Green said. "When I take my clothes to the cleaners, I find a black-owned business. Whatever I need--plumbing, car repairs--I think black. Ninety percent of all my business is through African-American businesses. The businesses are there if you look for them."
The group's mission is to ensure that more blacks look for them.
Nassardeen, who has given his pitch hundreds of times to businesses throughout the area, said there is more than $30 billion of capital in Southern California's black community and that little of that is now recycled. He wants the money to make several cycles in the black community before it leaves: From the black doctor's coffers to the black-owned gas station's safe to the cash register at the black-owned restaurant.
"Every time you reach into your pocket and take a dollar out, think about whether it's helping the community," Nassardeen says. "Begin to respect your dollars. You earned that dollar, and you're a black person and you want to see that that dollar creates an advantage in your community."
The philosophy behind Recycling Black Dollars is not a new one: Booker T. Washington formed the National Negro Business League in Boston in 1900; the Black Business Assn. in Los Angeles has been an advocacy group for black entrepreneurs for 20 years; black business directories are now available in two dozen communities across the nation.
The U.S. Census Bureau had good news in its latest report on black capitalism: The number of black-owned companies jumped 38% to 424,000 in the five years ending in 1987. Although most of the businesses were small retail and service operations, the number of companies with paid employees showed an 87% increase, the report showed.
Los Angeles, with 12,197 companies owned by blacks, trailed only New York City, according to 1980 census figures. California has more black-owned companies than any other state in the nation, according to the figures.
Despite the rise in black companies, black entrepreneurs say that breaking into business remains difficult, and many operations are struggling to survive. As a solution, the ethnic camaraderie philosophy rubs some the wrong way.
"If we had a Recycling White Dollars, people would hit the fan," said Ken Gossett, a longtime Inglewood businessman and Chamber of Commerce member who is white. "I know they want to capture a market, but people are going to buy things that are the best value for them regardless of whether the company is white or black."
Nassardeen, a former public relations official at Centinela Hospital Medical Center, said he created Recycling Black Dollars with $20,000 of his savings after overhearing black physicians disparaging other blacks and generally "talking as though they were members of another race."
The black doctors hired white lawyers and accountants because they questioned the competence of blacks, Nassardeen said. That's one of the sentiments he must confront repeatedly, a perception--even among blacks--that black businesses do not compare favorably to their white-operated counterparts. Part of his job is to make sure black business owners know they are under scrutiny and that, as unfair as it may be, poor service at one black business may spoil things for many others.
To help consumers keep black businesses in mind, Recycling Black Dollars publishes a directory of black-owned businesses, offers 10% discounts at the businesses to members and provides an array of services to help struggling operations stay afloat. The group is also a key sponsor for the Black Business Expo, a gathering of hundreds of black businesses held annually at the Convention Center.
Among the businesses represented on the group's membership rolls are hypnotists, trophy shops, a fitness club, engineers, video stores, carpet cleaners, banks and copy machine repair services.
"I never realized that there were so many black business people," said group member Henri O'Bryant, 85, who started manufacturing and selling choir robes in Los Angeles in 1942 and still produces 100 a week. "This organization has done more to bring us together as a group than anything else I've ever seen."
To reach out to more blacks this year, Recycling Black Dollars has merged its newsletter with a slick magazine called Black Bottomline and combined its directory with the larger and more established Greater Los Angeles Black Pages. It also has formed a relationship with the Seventh-day Adventist Church, which will promote Recycling Black Dollars membership among its black parishioners.
Recycling Black Dollars will hold a prayer breakfast this month to urge 100 black ministers to publicize the organization among their congregations and to name April 21 "Black Business Sunday."
The group is also setting up an investment club in which members contribute as little as $25 per month to a fund that includes investments from all 35 members in the club. The combined funds boost the investment power of everyone's money, said treasurer Debra Santos.
Gas stations have become one of the group's priorities during 1991 because Nassardeen figures that the vast majority of blacks drive cars and therefore need gas.
The organization's goal is to increase the number of black-owned stations in Southern California over the next year by making the stations that exist extremely profitable and thereby providing an incentive to oil companies to locate stations in black communities. Recycling Black Dollars has published a list of black-owned stations and sponsored a "Pump It Up" day in the fall during which black elected officials waited at select black stations to welcome people after they pumped.
On that day, when then-Assemblywoman Maxine Waters was at his station, King said he could not believe the business he had.
"You could hardly get in here," he said.